Gjizar the Nightingale, an Albanian folktale

Once upon a time there was a king who had three sons. The only thing the king cared about was praying at the mosque. So he had a beautiful mosque built and when the workers had finished it, he went there to pray. While he was praying, a dervish entered and said to him, “The mosque is indeed beautiful, but your prayers are in vain.” When the king heard this, he had the mosque razed to the ground and had another more beautiful one built on another spot. When the second mosque was finished, he went there to pray. The dervish entered again and said the same thing as the first time: “The mosque is indeed beautiful, but your prayers are in vain.” The king then had this mosque, too, razed to the ground and another one built. He wasted so much of his money that his fortune was all gone and the kingdom became poor. When the third mosque was finished, he went there to pray. While he was praying, the dervish entered again and repeated what he had said earlier. The king got up and returned to his palace, where he sank into a state of profound dejection. He had no more money to have the mosque razed to the ground and another built, and yet when he went to say his prayers, he knew that they were in vain.

His sons noticed that he was lost in thought and worried, asking him, “What is wrong, father? Why are you so sad? We have our fortune, we are royalty. Why are you so lost in your thoughts?” The king replied, “I have spent my whole fortune on building mosques and I cannot even pray in them.” “But why not?” the sons asked. He answered, “Every time I say my prayers in the mosque, a dervish comes by and tells me that my prayers are in vain.” The sons then replied, “Go to the mosque tomorrow morning and pray. We will wait outside for the dervish to see what he has to say.” And so it happened. The dervish entered as usual and said, “The mosque is indeed beautiful, but your prayers are in vain.” As the dervish was going out the door, the sons took hold of him and asked him, “Why do you always say, ‘The mosque is indeed beautiful, but your prayers are in vain?'” The dervish replied, “This mosque is indeed beautiful, there is none more beautiful on earth. But it needs Gjizar the nightingale to sing in it for the mosque to be one of a kind on earth.” The sons inquired, “Where is this Gjizar the nightingale?” The dervish replied, “I have simply heard of it, but I do not know where it is.” Then they let the dervish go, ran back to the palace and said to their father, “The dervish told us that Gjizar the nightingale is missing from the mosque, but he does not know where it is to be found. Let us go and see if we can find it.” So the three sons set off to find Gjizar the nightingale. When they had journeyed for about twenty days, they came to a spot where the road divided into three. At every fork there was a stone with an inscription on it. At two of the forks, the inscription read, ‘Whoever takes this road will return’. The third inscription read, ‘Whoever takes this road will never return’. The three brothers stood there for a moment and took counsel. The youngest of them said, “Let us separate here. Each of us will go his own way. We’ll leave our three rings here, and the first one to get back will go and look for the others.” So they left their rings all under one stone, kissed one another and separated. The youngest brother took the road with the inscription ‘Whoever takes this road will never return’ and the other two took the roads on which one could come back. One of the two older brothers reached a city and became a barber, the other reached another city and opened a coffee house. There they remained and looked after their businesses.

The youngest brother, who had taken the road marked with the inscription saying that he would never come back, got lost in a wilderness in which there were no villages, inns or people, only wild animals and other savage beings. On his way he met a savage woman who was combing her hair with the branch of a gorse bush. The youth went up to her and combed her hair with a comb, picking out all the lice. When he had got all the lice out of her hair, she said to him, “What can I do for you, now that you have done such a good deed and rid me of the lice?” He replied, “I need nothing anything. I would just like to ask you a question, and if you know the answer, tell me.” She replied, “What would you like to know?” The youth said, “I am looking for Gjizar the nightingale. You may have heard of it since you live here in the mountains.” She answered, “The bird you are looking for is not here. Go back, for there are only wild animals here. Even I, a savage, have never been over these mountains because the land beyond is full of huge beasts.” The youth replied, “I am going. Whatever happens is God’s will.”

And so he left her and climbed up into the mountains. There he saw a house. It was the house of a tiger. He went in. The tiger was not at home, but his wife was there baking bread. The youth addressed her and she answered, “What are you doing here? My husband will be returning any moment now and will devour you.” He replied, “Well, since I am already here, do whatever you want with me.” When the moment came for the tiger’s wife to put the bread into the oven, she had to fan the embers of the fire with her breasts. Each time she did this, she burned herself and was sick for ten days. When the youth saw what she was doing, he said to her, “Let me do it.” He took some leaves and fanned the embers with them. When the wife saw that she could bake bread without getting sick, she was very happy. But she was sorry for the youth, because her husband would come and devour him. When she took the bread out of the oven, she gave some to the youth and then hid him in a trunk.

Presently, the tiger came home and saw that his wife was not sick, but up and about, and snarled, “Why didn’t you bake any bread today?” “I did,” she replied. He retorted, “You used to get sick when you baked bread. Why aren’t you sick now?” She replied, “I found a way of baking bread without burning myself.” She showed him how. She fanned the embers with the leaves and said, “If there were a human being here who had shown me how to do it, what would you do with him?” The tiger replied, “I would make friends with the human being.” So she let the youth out of the trunk and said to her husband, “This is the one who taught me how to fan the embers.” The youth and the tiger kissed one another and became friends. The tiger asked him, “Why have you come here?” “I am looking for a bird called Gjizar the nightingale,” the youth replied. “Have you ever heard of it?” The tiger said, “There is no bird like that here, but I have a brother who is very old. His eyelids have fallen down over his eyes so he no longer sees anything. Go and pay him a visit.” He showed the youth the road to the house, saying, “When you get close to the house, you’ll see the wife of my brother the lion. She is old and has just turned around and is looking towards the house. You must go there backwards and take her breast into your mouth. She will then ask you, ‘Who are you sucking at my breast,’ and you must answer, ‘I am your son. I recognize you as my mother.’ Then my brother inside the house will ask who is there. You must reply immediately, ‘I am a friend of your brother the tiger who has sent me to you with a problem,’ and he will say, ‘Come in then’. You go inside and raise his eyelids so he can see you. He might know where Gjizar the nightingale is. If he does not know, you must not go any farther, but come back here.” Then the tiger and the youth kissed one another and separated. The youth arrived at the lion’s house and did as the tiger had told him, asking the lion if he knew where Gjizar the nightingale was. The lion replied, “The bird is nowhere to be found. Go back because from here on, there are only savage creatures from the realm of the jinns. Even I do not go there, though I am king of the wild animals.”

But despite what the lion had said, the youth did not go back. He said good bye to the lion and set off down the road which the lion had told him not to take. After he had gone quite aways, three eagles flew over him, opening up their beaks to devour him. But the youth simply drew his sabre and chopped off the wing of one eagle, the leg of another and the beak of the third. The birds flew off and the youth was able to continue down the road. After he had gone a bit farther, he saw a house in the middle of a wide field and walked up to it. There he met an old woman who had just put a cake in the oven to bake. When she saw the youth, she cried out, “What are you doing here, my son? My daughters will be back any moment now and devour you.” The youth replied, “Well, since I am already in your hands, do whatever you want with me.” The old woman took the cake out of the oven and gave some to the youth to eat. Then she set the table in the middle of the room, placed a bowl of water in the middle of the table, brought out some food and locked the youth in a closet which had a hole in it, so that he could see what was happening. After a short while, the youth saw an eagle approaching, the one whose wing he had chopped off. It flew in through the window to the bowl of water on the table, bathed in it and turned into a maiden. Soon after this, the other eagles he had wounded flew in, bathed and turned into maidens. Then they said to their mother, the old woman, “It smells like a human being here.” The old woman replied, “You’ve just come from the humans, that’s why it smells of them.” After the maidens had eaten, the old woman asked them, “If I had a man here, what would you do with him?” The eldest maiden replied, “By the soul of the man who chopped off my wing, I swear I would do him no harm.” The second said, “By the soul of the man who chopped off my leg, I swear I would do him no harm.” The youngest maiden also made the same promise, so the old woman let the youth out of the closet and he said, “I am the one who wounded you all.” But they were pleased to see the youth again and asked him, “What are you doing here?” He replied, “I am in search of Gjizar the nightingale and no one I’ve asked up to now has known anything about it.” They replied, “We know where Gjizar the nightingale is. If you are walking, you’ll never get there, and even if you did, it would take three years.” He then said, “Well, what should I do?” “We want you to do a good deed,” they answered, “and then we’ll take you there in an hour and you can find the nightingale.” The youth replied, “What is it you want; what is the good deed I can do for you?” They answered, “We want you to stay with us for three months and sleep with each of us for one month.”

After the three months were over, they took him to the place where Gjizar the nightingale was. In that region the Earthly Beauty reigned as queen. She had five hundred guardsmen at her court. A wolf kept watch at the outer door, a tiger at the second door and a lion at the door to her chamber. The three maidens took the youth there and left him in the courtyard just after all the guardsmen, the wolf, the tiger, the lion and the Earthly Beauty had gone to sleep. The youth went straight to the chamber of the Earthly Beauty. In her chamber she had four lighted candles and another four unlit on the table. The lighted candles were just about to go out. When the youth entered the chamber, he lit the four new candles and put out the burning ones, took the cage with Gjizar the nightingale in it and left. When he went out the door, everyone woke up. But before they could catch him, the three maidens grabbed him and took him off to their house.

There they remained together for quite a while, until the youth said, “Take me back to my country now,” and they took him back to the place where he had left his brothers. He went over to the stone where they had left their rings, found his brothers’ rings and set off down the roads they had taken. He found one brother working as a barber and the other in his coffee house and said to them, “Come, let us go back to our father. I have found Gjizar the nightingale and brought it back.” And so the three brothers set out to find their father.

On their way they got thirsty. Though they could find no spring to drink from, they did come across a well, but had nothing to draw water with. The two older brothers said to the youngest, “You climb down into the well and draw some water so that we can drink.” Then they attached a rope to him, lowered him into the well, cut the rope and ran off. At that moment, Gjizar the nightingale stopped singing. The water in the well was not very deep, however, so the youth did not drown. It only reached up to his neck and his head remained above the surface. The two brothers took the bird and brought it to their father. He asked about the youngest son, “What have you done with your brother?” They replied, “He has turned into a scoundrel and makes trouble everywhere from town to town.”

Now the queen, the Earthly Beauty, set out to do battle with the king and to find the man who had taken the bird. The eldest brother went to see her and she asked him, “Did you take Gjizar the nightingale?” He replied, “Yes, I did.” “Where did you find it?” she asked. “In a cypress tree,” he replied. So she had him flung to the ground and ordered her servants to beat him with a cane until he died. Then she had her cannons set up to fire at the city and had destroyed half the king’s palace, when the second brother, hearing that she had killed the first, became afraid. He ran off to his father and told him the truth that they had thrown the youngest brother into a well. The king sent his servants out immediately and they pulled the youth, half dead, out of the well. He could still breathe, but was unable to speak.

A few days later he was feeling better and was able to speak again. The moment he spoke, Gjizar the nightingale began to sing and indeed sang so beautifully that everyone marvelled. When the Earthly Beauty heard the nightingale’s song, she sent her servants to lay out a red cloth from the palace gate all the way to her ship. Then the king’s son mounted a horse, took the nightingale in his hand and rode out on the cloth. When the people saw him riding, they were very frightened and thought to themselves, “Now the Earthly Beauty is going to turn the city inside out.” But they were wrong. When the king’s son approached the ship, the Earthly Beauty came out and welcomed him. As they boarded the ship she asked him, “Where did you take the nightingale?” He told her exactly how he had found the bird, and so they became friends and got married.

And that is how the king’s son won the Earthly Beauty and lived happily ever after.

[Source: Holgar Pedersen, Albanesische Texte mit Glossar. Abhandlungen der philologisch-historischen Classe der Königl. Sächsischen Gesellschaft der Wissenschaften. Vol. 15 (Leipzig: Hirzel 1895), reprinted in Folklor shqiptar 1, Proza popullore (Tirana 1963). Translated from the Albanian by Robert Elsie.]

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